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How I Write: Pia Z. Ehrhardt

By Michelle Reale
Published: March 8, 2010
Pia Z. Ehrhardt’s stories occur in and around New Orleans, a place of hardship and decay but also hope. Her women are trying to find love, or something like it, and flail in their attempts. Ehrhardt, born in Philadelphia to musical parents, credits the melodrama of her boisterous Italian family for motivating her to write about what she saw and heard, since she had few other chances to “get a word in edgewise.” This is evident in the lilting, though imperative, cadences in her story collection, Famous Fathers. Ehrhardt was drawn early to Southern writers: “I liked how the landscape was a character, a living, breathing player in the work.” She studied with Frederick Barthelme and Mary Robison, whose fiction she describes as concise, meticulous and openhearted. Her work has appeared in many print and online publications, including Mississippi Review and Narrative, and can also be heard on NPR and WQED. She is at work on her first novel, Speeding in the Driveway. She lives with her husband and son in New Orleans, a community she loves and is committed to in the wake of Katrina.

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Why: I write to have a voice. I was a quiet kid in a noisy, overwhelming Italian family. They had opinions about everything and everyone, and told rhythmic, vivid, compelling stories. My first stories in college were basically transcriptions of the family lore. I was more scribe than writer, but my own edges and my need-to-know started to creep into my work. I wanted to dig beneath the surface of what I’d been told; I got interested in the complexities, in what no one would talk about. To do this, I had to stop worrying about pleasing the family. And I realized I could make things up in the service of some kind of truth. I could do whatever I wanted! I like that in the space of your own work, you are the boss.Routine: We just renovated our 100-year-old house, so I have a writing desk on the second floor that overlooks a lovely park. On the desk are my laptop, a pencil cup, a coffee cup, and a speaker for the music I keep on low. … Some mornings I’m up before my husband at 5, and some days I don’t even look at the work until late af-ternoon, and by then he’s home from work. … On a good day, I can write for eight hours, stepping away from it for a walk or food, and returning to it to find it waiting me out. I’m finishing a novel, and what I realize is this: Writing a book is not polite. It’s absorbing and anti-social. I grew up with a father who’s a composer, and he’d close himself off to the family all day, and the house had to stay quiet around him. So I resist doing this to my family, but the work’s pull is always there, dividing my loyalties.Getting ideas: I usually start a story with a conflict that worries me: A mother takes off with an old flame and leaves behind her sons; a woman is in a relationship with a man who only wants to see her one month out of the year. And then I try to follow and understand the characters’ worries and desires—the protagonists’, but, more importantly, the antagonists’, because I think life is so much richer than who’s right and who’s wrong.Revisions: I write one or two drafts of the story, and then I go back into the places I’m avoiding, because the heat is always where the story squirms or changes the subject or forgets something important. My short stories usually go through 20 or 30 drafts, as I discover what I’m really writing about. Stories can be wily things: They get stuck. They hold on to their truths and don’t want to let me in, so I do things to jangle them: switch POV from first to third (to flatten and add distance), or from third to first (to close in); or I add scenes that get the characters moving into spaces less familiar; or I introduce another character, to help crowbar the piece open. This is the hard work.

The pleasurable part of revision is mining what I’ve written, … shaping the work into something that feels complete.

Advice: I teach at the New Orleans Center for Creative Arts, a high school for gifted students, and workshopping their stories keeps me honest. I ask them to be compassionate, open and fearless, to not hear footsteps, and to admit to the trouble—the conflict—quickly, so they can get down to the business of making a story about something we didn’t think we needed to know but now can’t forget.

Interview by Michelle Reale, an academic librarian and fiction writer.(This article appears in the February 2010 issue of The Writer.)

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